Challengers fail to take control of Tarrant water district

Posted Saturday, May. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Three challengers backed by more than $200,000 in campaign contributions from two wealthy Dallas landowners failed to take control of the Tarrant Regional Water District board Saturday.

In incomplete returns, Mary Kelleher appeared to be the only challenger to win a seat on the five-member board after leading a pack of seven candidates that included three other challengers and three incumbents with more than 60 years’ experience on the board.

With all 137 boxes counted, Kelleher was the top vote-getter, with 18.4 percent. Jack Stevens, a veteran member, had 16.2 percent, and board President Vic Henderson was overcoming an early deficit with 15.5 percent.

In fourth place was the most vocal challenger, John Basham, at 15.31 percent, followed by Hal Sparks, one vote behind. Challenger Timothy Nold had 13.3 percent and Dwayne Herring 5.9 percent.

“I feel like we’ve had a tough battle in light of the accusations that were made against us, which were erroneous,” Henderson said.

Stevens said he is relieved that most of the board is intact.

“It shows that people out there really know what’s going on. They realized their water was in jeopardy,” Stevens said. “They [the opponents] put out a lot of information.”

Collectively, Henderson, Sparks and Stevens had more than 60 years of experience on the board.

Jim Lane, a board member who was not up for re-election but fought to defend his colleagues, knew that things were going to be close. “It’s going to be wild.”

Calls to the three most vocal challengers — Basham, Nold and Kelleher, who ran as the BNK slate — were not returned Saturday night.

The push by the challengers was led by Basham, who received over $200,000 in donations from ranchers fighting to stop a pipeline project in East Texas that cut across their land. The contributions made the water board race one of the hottest on the ballot.

Basham, a meteorologist who ran unsuccessfully twice before, got the money from HillCo Partners, an Austin-based political action committee. He used it on fliers that accused the incumbents of wasting money on luxury helicopters and hunting leases, among other things.

In talking about the money flowing into his campaign, Basham had said that “I’m in it to win.”

Unhappy landowners

The campaign contributions came from two men who had issues with the district.

Basham, who used to live in Fort Worth but now lives in northern Azle, qualified for candidacy only because he owns a small piece of property near Eagle Mountain Lake that was formerly owned by Clyde Picht, another critic of the water district.

Basham received $105,000 from Monty Bennett of Dallas through HillCo Partners and $100,000 from another wealthy Dallas landowner, Bennie Bray, according to campaign finance reports.

Bennett owns a 1,000-acre ranch that is home to a wildlife preserve for endangered species. Bray owns the 2,500-acre Barefoot Ranch. The properties are in Henderson County in East Texas and both are in the path of the $2.3 billion Integrated Pipeline, a joint project between the Tarrant Regional Water District and Dallas that would bring water from Lake Palestine to the Metroplex.

In March, Bennett sued the water district over the project, contending that the board illegally approved it. The lawsuit also alleges that the district repeatedly violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when decisions were made on land acquisitions.

Basham seized on the allegations in the lawsuit, criticizing the practices of the water district as “corrupt” and accusing the incumbents of receiving campaign donations from companies and contractors with an interest in the district.

Basham ratcheted up the campaign with slick fliers showing a luxury helicopter with leather interior, as well as a boy dubbed “Captain Clean” and wearing a superhero suit. The mailers accused the district of holding secret meetings and not keeping the water clean — allegations that Henderson and other officials deny.

Henderson said the contributions to him and the other incumbents were small compared with those given to Basham, but he agreed that some came from out-of-state donors with an interest in the water district.

Varied backgrounds

Kelleher, 50, a supervisor for Tarrant County’s juvenile court system, owns a 12-acre farm in east Fort Worth and said she has grappled with issues including natural gas compressor stations and flooding. Kelleher said that she is interested in water conservation and that serving on the board would be a “perfect fit.”

During the campaign, Stevens, 69, a retired engineer from Vought Aircraft, praised the water district’s efforts to promote conservation, saying that the Lawn Whisperer campaign has helped reduce water use by 20 percent. The district is also involved in wetland projects that are adding to the water supply, he said.

Henderson, 75, a petroleum engineer who has served on the board since 1985, defended the water district’s actions during his tenure. He said the district has worked to prepare for the water needs of a thirsty Metroplex, where the population is expected to double by 2060.

Big projects

The district provides water to about 1.7 million people, but only those living in a few cities — Fort Worth, Edgecliff Village, Westover Hills, Westworth Village, part of River Oaks and the Tarrant County portion of Azle — are eligible to vote. An area in unincorporated Tarrant County around Eagle Mountain Lake is also part of the district.

The Tarrant Regional Water District is one of the largest raw-water suppliers in Texas. Its operations span 11 counties, reaching from Jack County to Freestone County.

The board oversees more than 150 miles of pipeline and the maintenance of dams at its four reservoirs — Cedar Creek and Richland-Chambers in East Texas, as well as Benbrook Lake and Eagle Mountain Lake. It also maintains more than 27 miles of floodway levees designed by the Army Corps of Engineers to provide flood protection to residents along the West and Clear Forks of the Trinity River.

In recent years, the district has also been a key player in the $909 million Trinity Uptown project, a flood control and economic development effort that stretches from an industrial area on Fort Worth’s near north side to the green spaces of Gateway Park on the east side. Its plans include a bypass channel and a Town Lake north of downtown.

District officials worried that if Basham’s slate prevailed, a number of projects would be in jeopardy.

They said that if the pipeline project were stopped, it would mean dire consequences, including water shortages.

It would supply enough water for a thirsty Metroplex through 2040.

Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696 Twitter: @fwstliz

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